Love in the Lyric Tradition
The following paper is an analysis of Petrarchan ideals in the development of the sonnet as later used by Sidney and Shakespeare. It shows critical thinking in the gathering, synthesizing, and evaluating data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate these discoveries in ways suitable to broader academic and/or cultural conversations.
Though Petrarch did not create the sonnet, he is rightfully considered among the fathers of the form. In The Development of the Sonnet, Michael Spiller calls him the “greatest single inspiration for the love-poetry of Renaissance Europe”(45). As a counterpoint to Dante’s lofty spiritual aspirations, Petrarch’s self-consciousness and his willingness to express a more temporal ideal opened the metaphorical door to later poets like Sidney and Shakespeare who would eventually bring the sonnet form into a far more personal realm. The Stilnovisti, hallmarked by courtly, virtuous love and a pure, visionary quality to their verse recorded the moment of first contact with their divine lady that changed each poet forever. Though Petrarch wholly retained the stilnovisitic ethic of the donna angelica in his portrayal of his Laura, he did allow for a more human and, perhaps, less exalted /I/ in his sonnets. Sidney, as a successor to Petrarch and a precursor to Shakespeare, seconded him in his adoration of a celestial Stella, but superseded him in his use of the tortured /I/. Shakespeare would later take the form even further from its initial ideal. Petrarch’s lines, “My two usual sweet stars are hidden; dead among the waves are/ reason and skill; so that I begin to despair of the port,”(qtd in Puchner 2071, 9-10) from Rime 189 show the doubt and aching humanity that characterized Petrarch’s Rime Sparse and paved the way for poets to come. Petrarch spoke of his humanity where other poets had written.It is that very voice of doubt and despair that was his most important contribution to his poetic progeny, Sidney and Shakespeare.
Sidney, as a transitional figure in the history of the sonnet, fostered many of the ideals of Petrarch. His Stella was cut from the same flat, gilded cardboard as Petrarch’s Laura and Dante’s Beatrice. His verse echoes the plaints of Petrarch, though he was whining more to his reader rather than to a pitying God or departed maiden. He even used the Ovidian trope of classical deities, especially Aurora and poor, abused Cupid. In his position in Elizabethan society and politics, Sidney displayed the highest courtly ideals of the Stilnovisti. He was a master at what our text calls a “game of literary masks, psychological risk-taking and open secrets” (Greenblatt 1084) while maintaining his seemingly innate air of sprezzatura. In his poetic works, however, he departed from the stilnovistic ideal that “beyond contemplation of physical beauty lies contemplation of the beauty of the soul, and beyond that, the contemplation of the beauty of the Divine”(Spiller 73), and concentrated not on divine beauty at all, but on his own tormented soul. Like Petrarch and Shakespeare, Sidney examined the mind and soul of the lover. He exposed their contradictory impulses, and the intensity of their desires and frustrations. As a courtier, and a perfect one, Sidney was in this game, not for the enlightenment Petrarch sought, but for his own advancement and enrichment. When he did mark the moment at which he encountered his donna angelica, and demonstrated the Stilnovisti’s psychomachia, or “battleground of the faculties” (Spiller 38) he then turned it inward into a self-examination of his own tormented love. He took the dissidio that distinguished Petrarch from the Stilnovisti, “the psychic and rhetorical instability as the principle of a work of poesis” (Spiller 49) and turned it into a deconstructive irony in which the /I/ that suffered is remembered by a current /I/ described by a third /I/ that creates them all. As he wrote in Astrophel and Stella, “Then thinke my dear, that you in me do reed/ Of Lover’s ruine some sad Tragedie:/ I am not I, pitie the tale of me” (Greenblatt 1092, 45.11-13). In asking her (and us) not to pity him but his story, he all but sings that he is not to be identified with his /I/. All of Sidney’s known /I/s are fictional, layered beneath layer upon layer of masks and self-consciousness.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, is even farther removed from the paternal Stilnovisti than Sidney. He has been described as the anti-Petrarch. That is, perhaps, not entirely fair. He did use the sonnet much as Petrarch did to describe desire and to express the ephemeral nature of love and the futility of a fragile self cast against an immovable object. He, like Petrarch and Sidney, also promised his lover immortality in verse, though he never named either of them. He and Sidney shared the English sonnet, and he did maintain the discrete and tidy room exemplified in Petrarch’s form. All of that was, however, but a framework for his genius. The ABAB CDCD EFEF GG form from which he seldom, if ever, strayed gave him ample room to diverge from an already beaten path. In his poetry, Shakespeare contemplated a more earthy plain than his Petrarchan predecessors. Far from “mediating the radiance of God” (Puchner 2065), his donna was so removed from angelic that he described her in Sonnet 144 as his “female evil” whose aim was to “win me soon to hell”(Shakespeare 1803 144.5) by the temptation of a second, male angel. Though manly affection was not alien to the courtly Stilnovisti, Shakespeare took it much further than ever they (publicly) imagined. He turned the courtly Queen of the Fortunate Isles on her head by having not one, but two, inconstant and flawed lovers, including a male lover with whom he almost certainly had physical intercourse. His choice of muse(s) was not his only departure from tradition. His use of metaphor was tangled and wickedly complicated. He shunned the “hot ice” conceits of Petrarch in favor of a Love that “is the star to every wand’ring barque”(Shakespeare 1793, 116.7) or a description of encroaching age such that,
“In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunlight fadeth in the West,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest” (Shakespeare 1778, 73.5-8)
Shakespeare’s brilliance was not contained or constrained by the sonnet form of the Stilnovisti, Petrarch, and Sidney. He was not forced to appeal to pastoral or Ovidian tropes to portray the sometimes dolorous reality of his forbidden loves. Though scandalous in courtly terms, Shakespeare’s poetry far surpasses Sidney’s in beauty and emotional scope.
Petrarch’s value in the history of the sonnet is undisputed. Far from his only contribution, his determination to write in the vernacular instead of Latin made the sonnet form accessible to poets and readers of every class. His poignant metaphors and conceits, though risible even by Shakespeare’s time, broke ground and endeared him to his readers for centuries. Though separated by centuries, Sidney and Shakespeare are his natural heirs. Sidney gave the world the first sonnet sequence in English. He showed us the courtly posture of anguished love in service to unattainable beauty. His was the eloquent control, simultaneously self-deprecating and self-approving, of an adept courtier. He magnified the dissidio of Petrarch, expressing the part of the human spirit that tries to rise from darkness to light, but being human, falters. Shakespeare magnified it again, revealing the fissures and blemishes of love in a way that was entirely personal. He brought humanity in all of its hideous glory to the page. His “mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” yet he cannot let her go. In a gift to poets and poetry in the centuries to come, Shakespeare defied the stilnovistic vision of divine perfection and allowed for humanity, fallibility, and cruelty in himself and his beloveds. In exposing his real psychic agony and not hiding it in courtly epithets for flourishes, he made the sonnet a living and breathing form that remains relevant centuries after his demise.
Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. W.W. Norton, 2018.
Puchner, Martin, et al. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. Norton, 2016.
Spiller, Michael R.G. Development of the Sonnet: an Introduction. Taylor & Francis, 2015.
For my final group project in Love and the Lyric Tradition, two other students and I undertook to retell and perform Plato’s Symposium in verse. The following are my sections: Phaedrus, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, and the Close. Jess Mansis composed and played the music.
Sweet Phaedrus, youth of Socrates’ desiring
At Agathon’s Symposium proposed the deed
Urged on by Erixymachus in speaking in
Demanding odes to Love to fill the need.
Blessed by Socrates and all those present
Phaedrus with highest praise he did begin
“Hesiod says once was only Chaos
Until the dawn of Earth, and Love, her twin.
What better for a lad than gentle loving,
So what better god than Love to bear the name
To teach a boy all honor and to guide him
A lover never leads his lad to shame
Would that we had armies made of lovers
Fearless lads and lovers side by side
Each spurred to gallantry in other eyes
In love there is no coward’s face to hide.
No will die for you but your Lover
Even a lowly woman will be brave
Alcestis gave her life for her Admetus
Winning her a life back from the grave.
Even greater was the boy Achilles
His lover Patroclus’ killer to slay
Knowing Hector’s death meant his own passing
Not once did his intention ever sway.
So delighted were the gods with his valor
The Isles of the Blest were his to stay.
Therefore, says Phaedrus, is Love most ancient,
The virtue gods love most is the true boy
For lovers being most by gods inspired
We honor them in blessedness and joy.
(Pausanias) (hiccough) (Erixymachus)
Amuse us, Aristophanes
With a tale of Love and Woe
Too right, said he, now let me see
It was (pause) The Origin of Love.
Not to ignore the god himself,
But our origins were bold
Each of us was built for two
Two women, men or each
In faces, hands, arms and legs,
We o’erdoubled our reach.
Rolling like a rubber ball
Our doubled parents flew
To try our might against the gods
And see how we might do.
We’d summit Olympus to challenge Zeus
That was how we rolled
Zeus peeled off a lightning bolt
Rendering wholes asunder
Leaving each half thunderstruck
So sad attired in wonder.
Kind Apollo knit us up and
Turning our heads around
Moved our bits from back to front
To remind us of the wound.
So the children of the Sun
Man to man did pair
Lovely children of the Earth
Did women just as fair
Children of the Moon, it’s said
One of each seeking each other
Had no taste and would make haste
To do it in the gutter.
Thus it is that each one seeks
The half that they have lost
And finding them, won’t let them go
Though death may be the cost.
Now let us not annoy the gods
Into splitting us again
Eternity is too much for me
As a heiroglyph to your sin!
Socrates! Did you really think
Though I am MUCH the worse for drink
That I could ever let you go
Without a fray?
Where’s your jealousy, if not for me?
Pass that dish, I’ll spill the tea!
Friends assembled, I’ll have you know
It’s my jealousy that slays.
You know this man, our Socrates,
And how he’d rather die than please
If sound reasoning could show
A flaw within our play.
Like Marsyas in the marketplace
An angelic flute with a satyrs face
Charms to tears all that hear him blow
Staying even if they would not stay
But hear me now, so penitent
As one whose wasted youth was spent
Chasing a man in hopes to grow
A love that’d use his knees to more than pray.
I offered Socrates my wealth,
My friends, my gold, my naked self
He gave to me a resounding NO
And said it’d be a debt I’d never pay.
So full of pious wisdom, he
But he saw not that inside of me
My fever would not leave me, though
And by his side I promised that I’d stay.
I watched him in battle, I watched him at war,
Though I was the general, his valor was more.
Insensate to heat and rain and snow
Stalking like a pelican among those who’ld run away.
Be not deceived and learn from me
All gods in Silenus’ skin is he
Trust me, friends, all this I know
Though more I cannot say.
So join me now and raise a drink!
Wine’s the thing to stop me thinking,
I am a broken arrow from Socrates’ bow,
Another pretty face he’s thrown away.
Apollodorus to Aristodemus told
Socrates’ tale of the meaning of love
Plato in each player exposed
A step on the stair to a wisdom above
In making armies of lovers
Or creation diverse and divine
He gave them the scope of the meaning of love
In a tale that will intertwine.
What is the highest possible good?
Socrates must always demand,
To love the pursuit of wisdom and light
Is the answer he laid in their hands.
Alcibiades showed us sad truths
As all we broken lovers must
Who see in love all virtue
Though we wallow still in lust.
At the close of a thoughtful evening,
With the cries of the drunken throng,
Socrates silently slipped away
For centuries too long.
Literature for Diverse Populations of the Human Experience
The following is the script for a TED talk that I wrote and performed for my kid-lit class. It was a distinct break in style from my creative or academic writing. TED talks are performed with a distinct cadence that is similar to slam poetry and far outside of my realm of comfort. This project shows civic engagement in my ability to step outside my normal rhetorical lane and address a different audience in a new way. The paper itself shows critical thinking and communication skills.
“Let Them Read, Let Them Go, A Plea for Experiential Learning.”
Blurb: As a parent, one of my favorite things about raising my children has been watching them experience the world (particularly the natural world) and not only react to it, but co-create with it. When she was very small, my daughter loved little more than eating garden dirt by the handful. My son, on the other hand, felt an irresistible attraction to trees. He would hug them, climb them, and collect their leaves until his bedroom dresser was nearly lost beneath the drift. I didn’t mind. It was a joy to watch them. This talk is a tribute to them!
My theme is “Children Mastering Their Environment.” Similar to the common “man vs. nature” theme that one can find in Kipling, London, and so many other writers, it is much more cooperative and experiential. Children, you see, learn first by experience. Sensory inputs are our first teachers. But books are important, too,
from the very beginning. David Kolb, a psychologist, breaks down learning into a cycle of experience, abstraction, reflection, and experimentation. Where in that cycle do books reside? It would be easy to confine them to the realm of abstraction, where their collected knowledge helps us synthesize our experiences, but I think that that would be a mistake. They have far more scope than that. I believe books provide an important catalyst that both encourages and helps synthesize experiential learning at every step.
Children, human beings really, begin learning by experience. Our first learning opportunities involve concrete experiences. If children are allowed access to and control over learning experiences, they begin to trust and, most importantly, enjoy the process of finding things out. Have you ever walked a nature trail with a young child and watched them navigate the terrain with steadily increasing confidence? Perhaps you have finger painted with a toddler or played on a potter’s wheel with a teen. Their joy in these situations is palpable and incredibly important! Learning through experience is a bedrock for more abstract, reflective, and experimental modes of learning. Books that support the idea of a child’s freedom of experience are an important part of the cycle, too, encouraging exploration and allaying natural fears of independent experience. For a timid child, the right book can be a gateway to freedom, giving them a peek into a world that they can choose to join. Books provide a framework to both encourage and help synthesize experiential learning. The books I chose that exemplify these ideas to
me are Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls b y Favelli and Cavallo, In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, and Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. All of these books have and embrace main characters who take the world as it comes. They explore. They create. They play. They have passionate curiosity about their environments, whether it be an enormous bottle of milk, Vivian’s pasture, or a Snowy Day.
Though as they grow older, abstract concepts will play more of a role, the power that children can exert over their learning process in experiential learning is crucial to their development as learners. If a child is allowed to put herself into her knowledge of a subject, it becomes that much more of an entry for them into that subject. For example, in In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, a very young child has a strange, imaginative romp through a city fashioned of dry goods and kitchen tools. Though most children have probably not run nude through cake batter, most of them will have seen a whisk or an oven, if not a bottle of milk. This experience brings even more pleasure and humor to this hilarious book. Or, if a young child has experienced a day of playing in the snow, the book A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats will awaken tactile memories and allow a deeper experience of the book. Similar to the way that seeing a child of their own skin color in a book brings a child into a narrative, common experiences bring them in, too.
The converse is true as well. For many children, reading about a new experience in a book first can be helpful in introducing new ideas and realms for experience. Much as the experience of playing outside on a snowy day can enhance the experience of the book A Snowy Day, reading the book before ever seeing snow can enhance that experience, too. Reading In the Night Kitchen before making a
cake with a three-year-old can definitely make it a more interesting experience. Prepare yourself for some nudity, both in the book and in your kitchen, as among the brilliant and beautiful illustrations of this book are images of the infant Mickey in “a state of nature.”
When this book was published in 1970, it steamed up more than a few pairs of parental and literary spectacles. Some librarians, generally protectors of literary and artistic freedoms, took it upon themselves to obscure the genitalia and posteriors presented in the book by painting diapers over them. Some truly disturbed souls even burned the book. When asked in an interview with Stephen Colbert why Mickey has a penis, Sendak replied, “Because he’s a boy.” What a perfect explanation for a book that addresses experiencing a dream with all of the senses. By enjoying this book before baking with a child for the first time presents the experience as an accessible, fun, and whimsical one. Reading to prepare for experience works well in more challenging instances as well. There are many wonderful books written about children facing new and sometimes difficult circumstances that can be of help to children facing similar situations.
Books are also useful in helping children reflect on their experiences. Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Harris and the unnamed narrator face the trials of growing up on a farm; love at first sight, a misanthropic cow, a murderous rooster, and the unforgettable commie jap pigs. The narrator says,
“If asked later if I fully intended to follow Harris and jump into a pigpen, I would
have denied it. You could smell the pig crap fifty yards from the pen… It is possible that the sows had never been commie japs before – although since Harris lived there it’s doubtful they could have missed on such entertainment long. And it is also possible Harris had never jumped on them before in just this way, screaming and stabbing with an imaginary knife – although, again, with Harris there all this time it’s doubtful. But I think it’s fairly certain the sows had never been jumped on by two boys wielding imaginary knives, screaming death and mayhem at the tops of their lungs… The effect was cataclysmic.”(Paulsen, 40)
The effect of this passage and many others in this book was abject bedtime hilarity. My children and I could not stop laughing. The book also deals, however, with issues of parental abandonment, alcoholism, and abuse. In allowing the narrator, who is abused and neglected by broken parents, a safe and loving, if chaotic, home with extended family, Paulsen offers hope to children who have suffered similarly.
In creating a warm and hilarious experience for a child in a truly heart-rending situation, Paulsen uses humor as a tool. Humor is a thing that every child should experience, especially those who are in need of emotional or even physical healing. The American Psychological Society says, “humor stimulates multiple physiological systems that decrease levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, and increase the activation of the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system.” In simpler terms, laughing helps the body and mind heal itself from stress and disease. It also helps children view their experiences in a context that develops empathy and compassion for themselves and others. What better contribution could there be to a child’s ability to process?
The last stop in the cycle that leads back to experience is experimentation. Books like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls can encourage and inspire young readers to try things for themselves. In showing how artists, scientists, and leaders like Tamara de Lempicka, Mae Jemison, and Las Mariposas overcame hardships and acted on what was most important to them this book and others like it give children agency to change their world. In giving them stories of people who look like them, have backgrounds or families like them, and make a difference, these books show children that it is possible for them to act on their environment to effect change. In a world in which children are often seen, most especially by themselves, as powerless, books are a great help in self-actualization.
It would be impossible to end this Ted Talk without mentioning a book that facilitates all of these modes of learning. First written in 1986 by Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes covers experience, exploration, creativity, friendships and more in its wide-ranging subjects. Calvin and Hobbes’ adventures encourage a child into flights of imagination and into engagement with the world around them. They see Calvin speak truth to power and the real-world results. It is equally possible to enjoy Calvin and Hobbes before or after a best-friend romp in the woods, after a hard day at school, or just before launching into space in your cardboard spaceship.
Books like this show the importance of both experiential learning; going outside, playing in the snow, baking a cake, making mudpies, and doing the hard work of learning through reflection, abstraction, and experimentation. Kids (and adults) need both experiences AND books to help guide them through all of the stages of learning. Lifelong learning has been shown to improve self-esteem, increase satisfaction with our lives, and foster optimism and a belief in our own abilities. It creates tolerance and a sense of wellbeing, and vastly improves the quality of life for us and for our communities. Giving our children the opportunity to love reading and learning is a gift that will serve them and their communities throughout their lives and ours. Direct, hands-on experience of their environments is an irreplaceable part of all children’s learning process. Reading gives them a way to process those experiences and to understand and master their own environments. If we are fortunate (and smart!), we and our children will take advantage of the opportunity to be lifelong learners.